Okay, just for clarity, let’s start with the text in question. That way, I can ramble in the rest of the blog and you’ll understand what I’m rambling about.
Dear Gil Miller:
I have reviewed your manuscript PIPELINE: STARTUP. After careful consideration, I am sorry to say that I do not feel my interest is sufficient to pursue it any further with you. In case the following few thoughts might be useful to you, I would like to add: Your writing itself, line by line, is skillful. Your main character Lyle Villines is interesting, likable, and even compelling. However, a crime novel must have a strong sense of forward motion in its pacing, and this is what your manuscript lacked, in my view. Your query’s synopsis told me of a plot that sounded enticing, yet by page 75, almost nothing had happened. My best advice to you, as you write, is to put at the forefront of your consciousness the concept of storytelling that sustains a tireless forward motion.
Publishing is an extremely subjective business, and other readers may react differently. I do wish you the best of luck in finding an agent or editor appropriately suited to your work.
Aaron M. Priest
So there you have it, in black and white.
What’s so special about this that I want to write a post on it? Well, as any writer who’s submitted his/her work will tell you, rejections like this are about as common as hen’s teeth. Agents are busy folks. They get who knows how many submissions every week. Just having one read your ms is a major achievement—one that any writer will tell you is exhilarating and nail-biting at the same time.
Because they’re so busy, agents rarely send more than a form rejection that basically says I can’t get behind your writing and don’t have time to tell you why. This is a subjective business. Best of luck in the future. Heck, they don’t all say that last, but most do. Or maybe they don’t qualify their opinion as being subjective. Okay, fair enough. I understand that, and I’m sure most, if not all, writers do, too. At least, it’s hoped they do.
So, to get a personalized rejection like this is great, because now I know why it’s being rejected. And that’s worth far more than its weight in gold.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “Didn’t you just tell me that this is a subjective business? Can Mr. Priest’s opinion really mean that much?”
To me, yes. Why? Well, first of all, he’s the agent—as I’ve probably gone on ad nauseam about—to Robert Crais, my biggest inspiration and influence for writing crime fiction. But that’s a subjective reason, and I know that.
The better reason, in this case, is that he’s right.
I was—as I’m sure you expect—a bit disappointed when I first got this rejection. It’s a boost to your self-confidence when an agent for famous, bestselling authors shows an interest in your work. But that means heightened expectations, no matter how hard you try not to let them build up, and when you’re rejected, the fall is farther. At least, that’s how it’s worked for me so far.
And it’s even worse when you’re not sure why they’re rejecting your work.
Well, now I know because, in a nutshell, he’s right. For me, it was the elephant in the room, the nose on my face. As a member of my writing group said when I asked their advice, I’d let myself get far too comfortable with Lyle. I’ve sympathized with him too much. It made for great writing—that’s not just my own ego speaking there, its backed up by reactions from my writing group—but not the kind of thing that needs to be in a crime novel.
As Mr. Priest pointed out.
The more I thought about it—after getting past the initial disappointment, that is—the more it made sense. Especially after reading the letter to group and getting their feedback, which amounted to what I just said. Dusty Richards said it best: there needs to be dead bodies.
Lyle needs to be in danger. Part of what happened when I was writing was that I looked at that fact that you can’t just decide to get into dealing drugs and expect everyone to go, “Oh, okay, sure. C’mon in, dude. We got a place at the table for you.”
Drug dealing—at every level—is as cutthroat as any other business. Its illegality is just spice to the mix for the folks that do it. That and the fact they don’t pay taxes. Many of them are in it for the thrill of getting away with something society as a whole frowns on.
So, my main thought as I wrote the first part of my novel was to ease Lyle into the business because he’s not gonna just waltz in and snuggle up next to a major dealer/distributor. That ain’t happenin.
The other thing I was concentrating on was breaking Lyle’s naïveté. I wanted him to be largely ignorant of the true ravages of meth, and my first major turning point in the novel was for him to view a meth cook’s house and have it rock him to his foundations. I’ve written about reaction to that part of the book elsewhere, and I won’t rehash it here.
Between these two goals, the first part of the novel falls on its face, action-wise. It’s a great character study. By the time you get to that proverbial page 75, you should know Lyle very well. But he’s not been in any danger up till now. He’s had his worldview altered when it comes to what meth does to people, and he’s met the Higgins family, which is potentially dangerous, but he’s pretty much unscathed other than that.
And those two things don’t really count.
See, meeting the Higginses was necessary. He befriends them, and they’re his way into the world of major drug dealing.
And seeing the ravages of meth addiction is critical to character development. One of the things I really like about Robert Crais’s characters—and I’m referring to his major characters of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike here—is that he gets us inside their heads. Even as the world is going to shit around them and they’re dealing with some truly dangerous people—they’ve gone up against Russian Mafia and LA gangstas—things are going on inside them that make us root for them not only on the plot points, but on a personal level as well.
That’s what I want from my novels. Mr. Crais has stretched the boundaries of the crime novel, and I want to follow him into that unexplored territory.
Unfortunately, I forgot the essential: he still writes a damn good crime novel. The other stuff is subplot, not main plot. I let character take center stage. Fine of you’re writing literary fiction, but I’m not. Spree definitely does not qualify for that, not by any stretch. And I don’t want to enter that snobby world anyway.
It’s ironic that this should happen to me—and I’m referring to my previous post entitled “Keep It Moving, Just Not Too Much”—since I’ve complained about just this kind of thing. I can’t objectively say whether or not my novel moves, but I can say that, in my opinion, Lyle definitely moves through that part, he just doesn’t do it in a compelling way. It’s more like he went into an art gallery and he’s wandering around looking at paintings, deciding what he likes and what he doesn’t on a whim. He’s not there as a critic, not seeing the overall theme that art showings are supposed to have (I can’t attest to this as I’m a lowbrow who doesn’t go to art showings).
Lyle just kinda ambles through things until he accidentally hits on a turn in the plot.
That could be excused in the first draft. For that part of the story, he’s exploring because I was exploring. I was getting to know him as I wrote, and I was trying to figure out how to aim him in the direction he needed to go. The need to just write the damn story overwhelmed other things. A telling point there is that here we had a novel that I intended to have come in around 90,000 words end up being two novels long.
One of the hazards of writing seat-of-the-pants.
But, on edit, I should have seen this lack of action for what it was and corrected it. I didn’t. I do now, of course, but we all know what hindsight’s like. You smack yourself on the forehead—I’ve only done that figuratively so far—and wonder how in hell you coulda missed that. Especially when you bitched about it on a blog post, right out there where all and sundry can read it.
Hmm. Never realized what crow tasted like. Not to this extent, anyway. It’s one thing to eat it in front of one friend, but in front of my (admittedly limited) readership? Gah.
This one’s getting long, but I’d like to take a moment to thank the members of my writing group for their suggestions, all of which I’m taking into consideration. Some won’t work because of story structure, while others…well, I just have to figure out how to incorporate them into the story.
The good news? It’s not a major rewrite. Mr. Priest has a point, but things do start picking up after that. I’ll still look at it more closely, see if there’s a way to improve on what’s there. No, let me re-phrase that: see how best to improve on what’s there.
One last thing: There’s a feeling that runs through all of Mr. Crais’s novels that I haven’t—until now—been able to quite name. It’s there no matter what his characters are doing, and it’s something that goes beyond the fully realized world or the situations his characters find themselves in. It’s what makes me admire his work, and I’d love to incorporate it in my work, because it’s what makes his so compelling.
Now I know what it is: menace. I originally considered that it was danger, but that’s too blatant, too obvious, and it didn’t feel right. It’s menace, man. They brush up against the dark side of society each and every day, and they get on with the good things in life anyway.
That’s what my books need: menace. Lyle’s fallen into the world of crime, whether he wanted to or not, and he’s gotta deal with that for the rest of his life. Time for me to make him deal with it.
Good rejection. There is such a thing.